The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936)

This is the last of the Richard Hannay novels.

The series runs: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919), The Three Hostages (1924), The Courts of the Morning (1929), The Island of Sheep (1936).

Review by David R:

The Island of the title is situated somewhere North of Scotland. Probably based on an island in the Faroes, its isolation is a relevant factor in the plot. The story starts with a Buchan coincidence: he meets a man he has not seen for 20 years, Lombard.

Hannay later relates the circumstances of an incident in South Africa when they had saved a man’s life (Haraldsen) from business rivals. They swore to protect his heirs in the future. They are then called on by Haraldsen’s son to protect him from the son of the original villain, Troth. Troth’s son has been joined by various others, who are determined to seize the fortune held by Haraldsen. Sandy Arbuthnot (Green Mantle, Three Hostages) joins Hannay and Lombard to foil a  kidnap plot and get Haraldsen’s family to safety. Arbuthnot reveals that a far bigger desperado, D’Ingraville, whose path he has crossed previously in South America, (The Courts of the Morning) has taken control of the gang. The final action takes place on the Island of Sheep where anything is possible due to the absence of the rule of law.

I took this book with me as holiday reading, and did not manage to finish it while away. I found the pace much slower than the previous four Hannay books. I think I now know why it was never included in the Omnibus edition of the first four novels. It was published after the first edition of the Omnibus; it is not related in content to the other books; and to complete the cycle, there is a sixth book which precedes The Island of Sheep, The Courts of The Morning, in which Hannay plays a walk-on part, and the main action occurs in South America.

Nevertheless, it can stand alone as a tale. In fact, Hannay again takes a back seat. As narrator, he is able to draw the various characters together, but he plays little active part. It is his fourteen-year-old son Peter John (who seems to be based very much on Buchan’s own son John) and whose love of wild birds plays a part in the story, who is much more the hero.

Although an adventure story, I think that the main point is to demonstrate how circumstances can strip a person of their civilised veneer and cause them to revert to their ancestral background. There are a number of apparently civilised businessmen who, scenting a fortune, turn into pirates. Lombard has become a soft City magnate, who seems unlikely to keep the promise he made years ago, but manages to get in shape, and there are Viking descendants who emulate their forebears. Whether this can be taken as a prophecy of what was to come in Europe a few years later is debatable, but Buchan was an astute politician, and must have considered the possibility.

The showdown throws an interesting sidelight on the attitudes still prevailing at the time the book was written. Buchan seems in no doubt that Hannay and his colleagues are fully entitled to defend the Island by arms, and that any inquiry into any deaths resulting will exonerate those gentlemen of good social standing.

Modern tastes will probably find it difficult to equate the professed love of wildlife with the rich man’s hobby of shooting it. The final chapters make reference to a whale hunt, which is crucial to the outcome. However, this has to be viewed in the context of an island economy, dependent on hunting for its survival.

For love of wild life, give me Victor Canning every time. Buchan’s treatment of the subject, although no doubt as extensive as Canning’s in its understanding of birds and beasts, is clearly based on what he knows of their habits as game.

Once again, Buchan’s treatment of anyone not British reflects the attitudes of the times. He clearly regards the rest of the world’s inhabitants as inferior, especially if they are not white.

The gap between the Hannay stories does not mean that Buchan was not writing so much, or that he had abandoned fiction. He created another semi-autobiographical character, Sir Edward Leithen, who represents the intellectual rather than the action persona, and retired shopkeeper Dickson McCunn who gets into all sorts of scrapes as a result of trying to emulate his own fictional heroes in Scott and Stevenson.

I enjoy Buchan as an author in his contemporary fiction works. I don’t enjoy his historical novels so much, although some of them are good reading, and I have shied away from his more literary efforts. My main interest is in contemporary fiction of the twenties and thirties, and in order to identify suitable authors I went down the road of noting their publishers and reading other authors from the same house. Hodder and Stoughton and Heinemann seem to cover most of them; it was certainly a good start in my quest. I don’t consider that I have to agree with an author’s point of view to appreciate his or her work. For example I can read Buchan and J.B. Priestley and enjoy both their stories without taking political sides. In doing so, I can get a wider picture of social conditions at that time, and compare them with the present day.

Note from Erica: The description of one of the Baddies, Barralty, is interesting for what it suggests about Buchan’s own views on the ‘battle of the brows’.  Barralty is described to Hannay by his friend Macgillivray:

He’s a first-class, six-cylindered, copper-bottomed highbrow. A gentlemanly Communist. An intellectual who doesn’t forget to shave. The patron of every new fad in painting and sculping and writing. Mighty condescending about all that ordinary chaps like you and me like, but liable to enthuse about monstrosities, provided that they’re brand-new and for preference foreign. I should think it was a genuine taste, for he has that kind of rootless, marginal mind. (p. 105.)

Clearly a bad lot!

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4 thoughts on “The Island of Sheep by John Buchan (1936)

  1. Lovely review! Excitingly enough I have discovered buried in Mount TBR a Wordsworth edition proclaimng “The Complete Richard Hannay Stories which doesn’t have The Courts of Morning, but will still be useful if I ever need to read all of these in one go!!

  2. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, July 2013 | Past Offences

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